North Korea’s second nuclear test and the death of former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun have thrown the Korean peninsula into a period of acute crisis and mourning. Hopes for Korean reunification and regional peace have become very dim indeed. It would seem that the extraordinary experiment that Kim Dae Jung initiated in the 1990s — inter-Korean détente and slow-motion reunification — has been dealt two mortal blows by the suicide of his successor in the South and the policies of his erstwhile negotiation partner in the North.
In retrospect, both shocks were predictable. North Korea was furious at the UN condemnation that followed its April rocket launch. It promised retaliation in the form of future nuclear tests. After many scientists dubbed its 2006 test a dud, Pyongyang clearly wants to dispel any doubts that it has a credible nuclear program. It probably needs to send a message to its population as well that the country is, if not prosperous, then at least strong.
The test also sent a triple telegram to the United States, South Korea, and China: Don’t ignore us, don’t lecture us, and don’t patronize us. The Obama administration has been preoccupied with other issues, and North Korea hasn’t been a priority. But there’s nothing like a nuclear test to get to the top of a presidential to-do list. As for Beijing, Pyongyang has always bridled at lectures from its “elder brother.” The relationship was never as close as “lips and teeth” as communist propaganda would have it. Now it’s about as close as lips and feet.
The message for South Korea, meanwhile, is particularly pointed. The hostile rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang sounds like that of a jilted lover. The South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak, the conservative elected last year, failed to follow up on the inter-Korean agreements signed by his predecessors. Instead Lee articulated his own vision of inter-Korean relations. Whatever merits that plan might have — boosting North Korea’s per capita GDP to $3,000 is certainly a worthy goal — it didn’t jibe with the North Korean government’s articulated desires. Seoul’s new human rights agenda also raised hackles in Pyongyang.
The successes of inter-Korean cooperation are on the line. Forget about the tourism projects that brought South Koreans to the North. Forget, too, about expanded economic cooperation. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, built with South Korean money and North Korean labor, is on the verge of collapse.
It could get worse. South Korea’s announced involvement in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a Bush-era institution designed to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their component parts, has elicited a predictably hostile response from the North. If the South attempts to board any North Korean ships, Pyongyang will retaliate. For two countries that have a history of naval clashes, this is no empty threat.
North Korea has also declared null and void the armistice agreement that ended the fighting in the Korean War (but not, technically, the war itself). Although both Koreas — and the Pentagon too — understand the suicidal nature of an attack, war can escalate for the most irrational of reasons. Matching Pyongyang’s aggressive rhetoric and provocative actions will only increase the probability of unintended escalation.
Which brings us back to Roh Moo-Hyun. The former South Korean leader prided himself on being a clean politician. Revelations that his family took bribes drove this honorable man into deep despair. Roh’s suicide stems from the corruption investigations. But because it coincides with the virtual collapse of inter-Korean relations, the former president’s death seems like an epitaph for his country’s policies of engaging its northern neighbor. Even though Roh’s tenure was notable for its departures from the progressive agenda — sending Korean troops to Iraq, negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United States, pushing through a huge increase in military spending — his legacy his inextricably tied to his progressive “peace and prosperity” approach to the North. Roh is gone; and it seems that inter-Korean peace and prosperity have gone with him.
It’s not too late to step back from the brink. We’ve been here before: the first nuclear crisis in 1994, the controversy over the underground site at Kumchang-ri in 1998, the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in 2002, and North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. The latest crisis has come a few months shy of its usual quadrennial anniversary. We managed to talk our way out of these previous perils. We can talk our way out of this one, too. The Obama administration must dispatch a high-level envoy to get the ball rolling. That would be the best way to honor Roh Moo-Hyun and his legacy. And put reunification back on track.
Asia Chronicle, June 2, 2009